February 16, 2020 – Sermon

Epiphany 6 February 16 2020 Psalm 119:1-8, Deuteronomy 30:15-20,
Matthew 5:17-26, 38-48 Choose
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WC Fields, the notoriously cynical, heavy drinking actor of American cinema in days of antiquity, was once seen reading the bible. A surprised colleague asked him, “What are you doing reading the bible, WC?” He replied “I’m looking for loopholes.”
Which is how I sometimes feel when I hear Jesus say “Be perfect.”

I’ve read the Sermon on the Mount many times. I can summarize most of it from memory reasonably well. But anytime I commit to preaching from this best known sermon of Jesus, I still find myself often perplexed and even intimidated….As Jesus tells us, first – he’s come not to abolish the law or prophets, but to fulfill them – then – not a letter or even a dash of a letter in the law will pass away till it’s all been fulfilled… Then – gives us a long list of sayings, each of them starting with you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times – but I say to you…. And in each saying that follows Jesus ratchets up the difficulty-level above and beyond what people of old were told… Poking all kinds of holes in the image we have of Jesus as meeker and milder than those stern Old Testament prophets…. As now here’s gentle Jesus saying–
‘You have heard it said you shall not murder and anyone who murders will be liable to judgement – but I tell you anyone angry with a brother or sister will be liable to judgement… and anyone who says “you fool” to a brother or sister will be liable to the hell of fire’ – literally the fires of Gehenna, a place near Jerusalem where pagans of old sacrificed children in fire…
We’re skipping today over three more Jesus sayings, each of which makes a similar point – it’s not the legal offense – nearly so much as breaking God’s law in our hearts – that can send us to the gates of lower purgatory…
And now we get to “you’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…” Israel’s basic law of retribution – which, we were taught in seminary, was liberal in comparison with neighboring nations – where the law was two eyes for an eye, several teeth in return for one eye damaged or tooth knocked out in a fight… But, Jesus says – “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other – if anyone wants to take your coat give the shirt off your back…”
Humble yourself, and humiliate your opponents, by exposing their behavior to public view… Which probably works best when people have lots of compassion for the oppressed and hurting…but can sometimes shock even cynics into a change of heart…
Then Jesus says “you’ve heard it said ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ “Love your neighbor” – a main theme of the bible. “Hate your enemy” – not in the bible, but said as if it was by people who don’t heed the bible. But, Jesus again says – I say to you – love your enemies– pray for those who persecute you – so you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun to shine on the good, bad and ugly – and his rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous…
And Jesus sums this all up, saying “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect…”

And (like I said)… I’ve been looking for loopholes….
So my ears perked up listening to the radio one night last week while washing the dishes…as a story was told of a young math professor who came up with a new way of solving quadratic equations. Now I’m not saying I’m terribly interested in quadratic equations. But I was fascinated to hear this young professor say – what he had discovered was so simple he couldn’t believe no one had ever thought of it before. So he went back and reviewed math history and learned – actually Babylonian mathematicians had known most of what he discovered 3000 years ago… And this had just been forgotten… over time.
To this young teacher’s credit, he was delighted to learn he had not been the first to come up with this supposedly new approach.
Which has got me thinking along similar lines – If I’m perplexed or intimidated by what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount – I’m surely not the first to feel this way…
So I’ve been trying to do a theological equivalent of what the math professor did. I’ve been reviewing the history of interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount… (Which isn’t hard to do, reading even a few commentaries, some of which can be found on-line…) And reviewing also even some of my own previous sermons, I’ve been reminded – even I have noticed… some of the many ways Jesus helps us… interpret his Sermon on the Mount…
Which is built on a framework old as Moses, who received the Law on Mount Sinai 1200 before the birth of Christ.
Now here’s Jesus, on a mountain like Moses, in one of his many appearances on a mountain in Matthew’s gospel. (We’ll see him on another mountain next week with Moses and Elijah the prophet.) And Jesus will be giving five longer teaching sessions in Matthew, mirroring the so-called five books of Moses. Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses, greater than Moses…
So – noting again Jesus describing himself as fulfilling all the law and prophets… we’re reminded his counsel as to how to observe all the law and prophets – (two chapters later in Matthew 7) – as he paraphrases the great teacher Rabbi Hillel, who, when challenged to give the meaning of the whole law while standing on one leg, said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow humans. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.” ‘Go and study, go and practice.’ Study sacred scripture. Learn all we can about the specifics of how to treat others as we would like to be treated. This is the heart of the law and prophets. Love God and neighbor with all your heart mind soul and strength. Do this and you will live, Jesus says elsewhere (Luke10).

Probably we know these answers from Jesus. But it’s still easy to forget things we’ve known all our lives – when questions are asked and statements are stated – in ways we are not prepared for… Even things we have memorized… can fail us in unexpected situations.
That’s a big reason why there’s still some shock-value in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We’re just not used to gentle Jesus telling us as bluntly as he does here, the other side of the do-unto-others equation – it can literally be fatal – to treat neighbors as we would not like to be treated. As Deuteronomy tells us bluntly today…. and as scripture tells us more subtly, always –
To try and fail or fall-short is human and forgiveable. But to not even try – and to refuse to repent of not trying – is fatal…
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We still need all the Law and Prophets – all the so-called Old Testament – to be reminded – our every day decisions have life and death implications…And we still need Jesus always – to help interpret all the difficult-to-interpret parts of scripture.
In Deuteronomy for example, we find some of the first writings on what’s now called ecology. Don’t destroy the habitat of nesting birds. Don’t over-harvest young trees. Don’t take more than you need when your neighbor hasn’t got enough. Be generous to those in need. Cancel the debts of the poor. Free those enslaved in bonded labor. Words of life… Fulfilled in Jesus…
In Deuteronomy we also find teachings for another people in another time and place… Not for us, except filtered through the life and teachings of Jesus….
Who calls us to continue fulfilling… all he has left for us to fulfill…

Which reminds me of another reason I was so interested in hearing that young math professor on the radio the other night… As he continued speaking… about what got him excited – saying – this “new” yet actually ancient method he came upon for solving equations… opened up a much more intuitive way of teaching for him, and way of learning for his students. ‘When my students only learn from text books and memorization, they forget most of what they learn, and can’t apply what they learn to new problems. So as a teacher, I’m excited by any approach that helps my students learn the process of learning – not just remembering answers…

Which sounds like the teaching method of Jesus – who leads a crowd up the mountain to learn… then sends his students out, two by two, to teach others. If he were to just give us a book of instructions and send us off, we’d soon be lost. So Jesus teaches us to pray as he prays, study as he studies, keep our heart’s open to God’s word and God’s Spirit… Jesus equips us to help others learn. Nearly all his first disciples were everyday lay people. We see them in the gospels, realistically portrayed, sometimes looking good, other times not so good. Looking perplexed, bewildered, afraid… even wondering if they guessed wrong about Jesus…

Which reminds me of another story I heard this week – of Anglican Bishop William Temple, who in 1931 in the midst of a large revival (I’m quoting now from an Anglican website): “led a congregation in the University Church… in the singing of the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Just before the last stanza, he stopped them – and asked them to read the words to themselves. “Now,” he said, if you mean them with all your heart, sing them as loud as you can. If you don’t mean them at all, keep silent. If you mean them even a little – and want to mean them more, sing them very softly.” The organ played, and two thousand voices whispered:
Were the whole realm of nature mine, – That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, – Demands my soul, my life, my all.

On days when we’re not ready to shout good news from the rooftops…We have permission…to whisper. Knowing by faith…
Somebody, somewhere… will be singing with us…

There will again be a time to sing loudly…

Meanwhile… in the best and worst of times.. We continue to do our best to do unto others…as we would like done unto us…
Looking to Jesus always… for help with all the details.

This is the law and the prophets. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Go and study. Go and practice.

Thanks be to God. Amen.